Making Juvenile Justice LGBT-Friendly
Spurred by lawsuits and a growing understanding of the population’s challenges, some states are making detention centers safer for and more accepting of LGBT youth.
Ten years ago, Hawaii saw the nation’s first lawsuit specifically addressing the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in juvenile detention facilities. In the suit, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged that three teenagers detained at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility had suffered abuse and harassment because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The teens said corrections staff had ignored -- and in some cases assisted in -- the mistreatment. A federal district court judge ruled in their favor. While the case forced Hawaii to settle the suit and adjust its policies toward LGBT juvenile detainees years ago, other states and localities are only now moving in the same direction.
Last fall, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a practice guide to help state and local youth correctional facilities become more LGBT friendly. The 48-page document includes examples of early efforts by Colorado, New Orleans, New York City and Santa Barbara County, Calif., to protect the privacy and safety of young people who identify as LGBT.
The Casey guide is an attempt to help jurisdictions become more aware of their LGBT populations and become proactive in preventing victimization. For example, one of the recommendations is to ask new detainees about their sex at birth, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and whether that identity is at odds with how others will perceive their gender. The questions come from an intake process that juvenile probation departments in 13 California counties already use. The guide follows a set of federal regulations that seek to end sexual abuse in confinement. Some parts of the regulations deal specifically with LGBT juvenile detainees. The rules stem from a 2003 law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was relatively toothless until the U.S. Department of Justice published the regulations in 2012.
But new legal pressures are only part of the reason jurisdictions are adopting reforms. The other impetus is a growing understanding of the challenges LGBT youth face. Recent research suggests they’re more likely to be homeless, more likely to drop out of school, more likely to suffer depression and more likely to wind up in a correctional facility than their heterosexual or cisgender peers (those whose experiences of their own gender conform to the sex they were assigned at birth). One recent survey of 1,400 detained youth in seven jurisdictions found about 20 percent identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning -- a far higher rate than is estimated in the general population.
Colorado has implemented several policy changes in this area. In late 2014, the state’s division of Youth Corrections adopted a nondiscrimination policy for LGBT teens. The policy calls for giving juvenile detainees uniforms that reflect their self-identified genders. Employees must address inmates by their preferred name and pronoun. Juveniles can also request strip and pat searches by an employee whose sex matches the juvenile’s gender identity.
There might be some growing pains as more jurisdictions adopt policies like Colorado’s. Corrections as a field is “not one that looks at [intake] assessment as a conversation about the wishes or perceptions of the detainee,” says Shannan Wilber, the youth policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the main author of the Casey Foundation’s practice guide. “That totally has to change.”